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Tirzah Garwood recalled a dream in which she was standing at a crossroads with the arms of a signpost pointing in three directions, marriage, lovers, career. She mentioned this to a friend, Christine Nash (married to the painter John Nash), who replied that she saw no difficulty in following all three roads, and this book supplies a memorable account of Tirzah’s attempts to do precisely that.
Her autobiography was written solely for the benefit of later generations of her own family, at a vulnerable time in her life, in 1942, with enemy aircraft circling overhead, and recovering from an operation. Above all, she had had to come to terms with the death of her husband, Eric Ravilious, while on service as a war artist in Iceland. It has only now been published and edited by her daughter, Anne Ullmann, and it is hard to read it without a slightly guilty sense of an illicit peek into the pages of a private diary.
Perhaps its principal value is the light that it shines on the situation of a young female artist during the middle decades of the 20th century, contending with issues of self-confidence as an artist, the emerging awareness of the tyranny of society’s expectations of women but also the sense that hers was a generation and a milieu from which radical transformations in behaviour could be expected. But the reader is soon engulfed in a richly detailed personal story, lightly and amusingly told with the same sardonically precise social observation that emerges through her wood engravings.
Tirzah recalls, with revealing detail, her Edwardian childhood in an upper-middle-class family in which any sign of ’common’ taste or behaviour was rigorously noted. There were tales of jolly uncles, who might attempt to blow up a snowman with dynamite, and somebody’s governess, ‘who died after her bath one day’. In 1925 she started at Eastbourne School of Art, where she encountered a young teacher, Eric Ravilious on his first post after leaving the Royal College; she learnt wood engraving there and was soon able to take this up professionally. A full monograph of her work is to follow shortly from Fleece Press.
The reference to Great Bardfield in the title of the present book signifies the location of the studio home she and Eric established with Edward and Charlotte Bawden in Essex. Bawden does not emerge from this memoir as a particularly attractive character, ’his eyes small and bright like an intelligent Essex pig’s’, with a distinctly unfunny taste in practical jokes. The English art world was a much smaller place at that time and Henry (‘Harry’) Moore, John Nash, Raymond Coxon, Barnett Freedman, Betty Rea, Beryl Sinclair, Peggy Angus and Michael Rothenstein, amongst others, frequent the anecdotes of artists’ parties and private views. Gradually, the youthful and carefree mood darkens under the growing clouds of European political turmoil; although she finds much of their conversation tedious, more and more of her acquaintances announce themselves as committed to left wing causes, and ultimately she and Eric are moved to host a German Jewish refugee.
The book works on a number of levels; it answers to the interest of the many enthusiasts for the work of Bawden and Ravilious, it provides a wealth of closely observed information for the social historian, from the horrors of rural lavatories, both English and French, to the reek of linoleum emanating from Northern guest houses, and the intricacies of social interaction in a society in which, Eric, the son of a shopkeeper, was understood to be ‘not quite a gentleman’. It also tells a poignant personal story of a young woman struggling with the opportunities that appeared to be opening up for her ‘set’ for affairs outside marriage and the subsequent anguish that generally followed such adventures.
The highest levels of design, materials and production characterize this book, which is produced in a limited edition of 550 copies, so inevitably this is reflected in the price, but then it is surely to be regarded as an eminently collectable book, even as an investment.
Long Live Great Bardfield & Love To You All: The Autobiography of Tirzah edited by Anne Ullmann is published by The Fleece Press, 2012. 297 pp. fully illustrated. ISBN 978 0 948375 95 8
Media credit: Image from Long Live Great Bardfield & Love To You All: The Autobiography of Tirzah Garwood